If Israel and the Palestinians are ever to forge an agreement meaningful to both sides, Palestinian educational reform must be a linchpin.
Palestinian schools, including those run by UNRWA, model radical Islamic madrassas (religious schools), incubators of violence and terrorism that exploit education to indoctrinate the next generation.
Billions in foreign aid, and numerous past efforts to reform education by the United States, the European Union and others ended in stalemate. Why?
Two primary fault lines – Palestinian leaders’ economic strategies and military perspectives – are deeply entangled in the Palestinian educational agenda. High youth unemployment – 58% in Gaza alone – is one result. The dismal employment outlook of Palestinian youth helps feed the illusion that an early death is their best hope.
Though the link between strong economies and a modern, knowledge-based educational strategy is well known, Palestinian economic (and social) progress has been sabotaged by over-dependence on massive foreign aid – combined with woefully inadequate oversight. Billions of dollars and euros from the US, the EU and other international donors have slipped through the safety net and into the pockets and political agendas of corrupt leaders, their families and cronies.
Foreign aid can energize Palestinian educational reform – but only if divorced from a weaponized curriculum of incitement to hatred, violence, terrorism, martyrdom and falsified history, geography and other subjects masquerading as academia.
In addition to the twisted money trail, Palestinians’ resistance to education reform is tightly bound to their concept of armed forces. Senior Palestinian Authority politician Nabil Shaath vehemently defended government “salaries” to terrorists in Israeli security prisons – including convicted murderers – insisting that halting the payments is the same as “asking Israel to stop paying the salaries of its soldiers.”
Shaath’s remark unmasks the Palestinians’ warped notion of a defense force. The Palestine National Charter defines “fighters and carriers of arms” as “the popular army which will be the protective force” of the Palestinian people. One must question if blowing up babies in strollers and innocent civilians in buses are justifiable goals of a “protective force.” The Palestinian concept of its “army” is undoubtedly a major sticking point that has obstructed previous efforts to curb incitement of children and youth in schools and summer camps.
The murky, conjoined nature of the Palestinian economy, military and education requires an integrated approach to reform in these areas under the joint administration and oversight of Israel, Palestinians and the US. Its potential promises to be most effective as a prerequisite – a “phase one” preparatory and developmental stage before any agreement to full-fledged Palestinian statehood.
The US State Department Archive, 2001-2209, describes “a U.S.-Palestinian-Israeli committee ... to monitor ... incitement to violence or terror and make recommendations and reports on how to prevent such incitement. The Israeli, Palestinian and U.S. sides will each appoint a media specialist, a law enforcement representative, an educational specialist and a current or former elected official to the committee.”
“That committee can and should be reestablished,” said Hady Amr, senior fellow for the Center for Middle East Policy. He acknowledged however, that Hamas, which produces its own militarized textbooks, could “hold the peace process hostage.”
Foreign aid should be contingent on a zero-tolerance policy for incitement in a new Palestinian model. The United States has taken meaningful steps toward this goal; but more international support is needed.
Positive educational reform will also require forward-thinking Palestinian leaders who genuinely want their people to prosper. If all parties are willing, perhaps Gulf Cooperation Council countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in concert with the oversight committee, could help the Palestinians develop an educational model capable of producing a viable workforce. They have been implementing extensive educational reforms toward knowledge-based economies for over 15 years. Qatar also has made strides in education reform, but its support of terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran render it an unlikely catalyst of positive change in Gaza.
While resistance to change is expected, and patience will be required, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have the capacity to help the right Palestinian leaders institute educational reforms in an Islamic context – and prepare their youth to become productive, 21st century citizens who can engage with the rest of the world. Do the Palestinians want war or peace? Their textbooks and their educational system tell it all.
The author is an international broadcaster and journalist who has served in senior level positions under four US presidents.